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6 politically diverse social psychologists agree: the field needs more diversity

By Richard Redding

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January 07, 2015

One of the most honest and revealing academic articles in a long time will soon be published in the premier journal in social psychology.

The article is “Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science.” Its six authors, all leading social scientists, describe themselves as: “one liberal, one centrist, two libertarians, one whose politics defy a simple left/right categorization, and one neo-positivist contrarian who favors a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy in which scholarship should be judged on its merits.” (The authors are: José L. Duarte, Jarret T. Crawford, Charlotta Stern, Jonathan Haidt, Lee Jussim, and Philip E. Tetlock.)

They argue that the research in social psychology produced by our universities is skewed by the liberal political views of the professors. Within the field, self-identified liberals outnumber conservatives by roughly ten to one, and the ratio is increasing.

Why should the public care? Importantly, it is professors who educate the younger generation, but recent surveys suggest that college students are dissatisfied with the rather narrow range of political and policy viewpoints they are exposed to in the classroom. They complain that their professors either do not give voice to conservative and libertarian perspectives or they only denigrate such viewpoints, and consequently, conservative and libertarian students often feel marginalized.

Moreover, psychological research has a substantial impact on policy debates and policy decisions made by legislators and judges on important political questions ranging from affirmative action, same-sex marriage, the death penalty, crime control, and so on. Research findings on these and other questions are often cited in U.S. Supreme Court decisions and in congressional hearings, and they often inform decisions made by state and federal agencies on a variety of matters.

The problem that the authors identify in the lack of intellectual diversity in social psychology is that it undermines good science. Here is their powerful argument: “The collective efforts of researchers in politically charged areas may fail to converge upon the truth when there are few or no non-liberal researchers to raise questions and frame hypotheses in alternative ways.”

Too much homogeneity of thought tends to “undermine the self-correction processes” that science needs. The authors show that social psychology suffers from the fact that the political beliefs of researchers can become so “embedded” in their work that it substantially affects how they frame questions and test hypotheses.

Ironically, no American institution has embraced racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation diversity (often called “demographic” diversity) more than our colleges and universities, and nowhere with greater enthusiasm than in the social sciences (and humanities). Universities differ in many ways, as do their psychology departments, but all celebrate diversity.

Substantial efforts and resources are devoted to attracting demographically diverse faculty and students, integrate culturally diverse content throughout the curriculum, provide diversity-related programming, and encourage researchers to be “culturally competent.”

Yet neither universities nor their psychology departments take the same steps to diversify the faculty politically or ensure that diverse political viewpoints are represented in the curriculum and or in their research. In a recent nationwide survey, cited by the authors, a third of academic psychologists admitted to discriminatory practices against those with whom they differ politically. Other recent studies also show substantial bias against politically conservative students, professors, and policy perspectives.

As the Harvard researchers Neil Gross and Solon Simmons have observed, conservative students and faculty (what few there are) perceive the academy as “appropriate for and welcoming of people with broadly liberal political sensibilities and as inappropriate for conservatives.”  Indeed, as one of the authors of this article noted elsewhere, if this climate existed with respect to people of color, it would give rise to a successful class action suit for racial discrimination.

Unfortunately, political bias remains one of the last acceptable forms of prejudice in the academy (and beyond). But ideas are what universities and academic psychology are all about. Why have they not embraced intellectual diversity on social and political issues?

The arguments favoring political diversity, each of which is supported by research findings, are nearly identical to those made for demographic diversity.

First, when a diversity of viewpoints and life experiences are represented among the faculty and student body, it benefits teaching, learning and research - indeed, demographic diversity is seen as key in achieving the educational benefits that flow from cultural and viewpoint diversity.

Second, the political values and demographic/cultural backgrounds of faculty and students are often central to their self-identity.

Third, discrimination in hiring and professional relationships due to differences in the political or religious values they hold is as insidious today as discrimination on the basis of differences in race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation was in the past.  That’s because people feel the most comfortable associating and working with those who share their values and the least comfortable with those who do not.

Universities ought to value and promote political diversity with the same vigor as they do demographic diversity. And the academic field of social psychology would particularly gain from including a greater diversity of perspectives. Unfortunately, conservative and libertarian students are hesitant to express their views due to the hostile climate toward such views that exists in large parts of academia.

Not only do political minorities bring diverse perspectives, but their presence tends to keep the rest of the scientific community “honest.”

Some academics claim that the academy’s research perspectives and findings are liberal because liberal ideas are necessarily the correct or enlightened ones. But scientific evidence refutes the notion that there are differences between liberals and conservatives in intelligence, academic ability, or in the nature or degree of bias when they evaluate research findings and policy questions.

More to the point, consider the strong evidence from various studies that ideological biases unavoidably influence research agendas, research perspectives and methods, as well as the interpretation of research findings and how those findings are used or ignored by professors to support their policy preferences. Social psychologists are just as susceptible to bias as everyone else and cannot help but be influenced by the views they hold on topics they investigate.

Fundamentally, the only way to achieve political diversity in research and teaching is to diversify who is on the faculty, by fostering a climate that is welcoming of multiple political voices and thereby encourages non-liberal individuals to pursue careers academic careers, and through outreach efforts to hire them onto our faculties.

We should not want political uniformity on our social science faculties, especially since political perspectives are an important component of culture and, therefore, of cultural diversity. Bravo to the authors of this sharp article for arguing so forcefully that serious scholars in social psychology need to work for much more diversity in their field.

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